Updated: Jul 1
I find that modesty is a somewhat neglected (or at least misunderstood) topic, at least as compared to what the early Christians and the Bible have to say.
It is easy enough to know (although we would be wise to continue to know) that a man ought not to lust after a woman (Matthew 5:27-28). So we avoid pornography and strip clubs, and the like, and we have learned techniques of “darting the eyes” (thanks to such books as “Every Man’s Battle”). Yet I’m sure we are mostly all aware (when in our right minds) that this temptation is not one-sided.
As an early Christian, Clement of Alexandria, wrote:
“And much more must we keep pure from shameful deeds: on the one hand, from exhibiting and exposing parts of the body which we ought not; and on the other, from beholding what is forbidden.” — Clement of Alexandria (A.D. 195) Ante-Nicene Fathers vol.2 pg.251
So the battle is not only to stop ourselves from looking where we ought not to look, but also to keep from exposing our bodies to give people a reason to look.
Because of this, I am thankful that among believing sisters in the Lord, there is at least a conscious awareness that we ought to “be modest.”
But what exactly constitutes modesty?
Sometimes I have the unfortunate necessity of having to turn my eyes away from my dear sisters in the Lord because of the way they are clothed (or unclothed, as the case may sometimes be). And even more unfortunately, sometimes these sisters are the very same ones who talk about modesty.
It seems we may have a problem in rightly thinking about what modesty is!
What then constitutes modesty?
First of all, let’s see what the Bible says:
“Also, the women are to dress themselves in modest clothing, with decency and good sense, not with elaborate hairstyles, gold, pearls, or expensive apparel, but with good works, as is proper for women who profess to worship God.” — the apostle Paul (1 Timothy 2:9-10)
“Do not let your adornment be outward—arranging the hair, wearing gold, or putting on fine apparel— rather let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the incorruptible beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in the sight of God.” — the apostle Peter (1 Peter 3:3-4)
Both the apostle Paul and the apostle Peter were in agreement that women’s beauty should not come from their clothing, but from their hearts. It is their good works (and their gentle and quiet spirit) that make them look attractive — not fancy hairdos, expensive clothes, or jewelry.
Great. Somehow I think we all agree up to this point.
Yet, why then do we have an issue?
Unfortunately, on the one hand, our cultural standard seems to have declined (and with it, regrettably, so has the church’s standard); and on the other hand, it seems that we hear in Paul and Peter only what we want to hear and do not take their words with as much weight as the early Christians did.
So how did the early Christians live? What did they teach?
Here is a quote from Clement of Alexandria, whom I quoted above also. He was a Christian living in the 2nd century A.D. He said:
“Luxurious clothing, which cannot conceal the shape of the body, is no more a covering. For such clothing, falling close to the body, takes its form more easily, and adhering as it were to the flesh, receives its shape, and marks out the woman’s figure, so that the whole make of the body is visible to spectators, though not seeing the body itself.” — Clement of Alexandria (A.D. 195) Ante-Nicene Fathers vol.2 pg.265
Wow! So, the purpose of clothing is to “conceal the shape of the body.” Therefore, tight-fitting clothing no longer serves this purpose, because the shape of the body is “visible to spectators.” Quite a point.
I have to say, working at Biggby, I am greatly irked inside every time “Teenage Dream” comes on the radio. This song really accentuates the fact that tight-fitting clothing is not much better than no clothing. Here are some of the words:
“I’ma get your heart racing In my skin-tight jeans Be your teenage dream tonight Let you put your hands on me In my skin-tight jeans Be your teenage dream tonight”
This is exactly opposite of how a Christian ought to think or conduct themselves. This is not even close to modesty. We shouldn’t be trying to get other people’s “hearts racing.” As Paul wrote, “It is good for a man /not/ to touch a woman” (1 Corinthians 7:1). This is very much contrary to letting a man put his hands on you.
Let’s listen now to another 2nd century Christian, Tertullian:
“Most women… have the audacity so to walk as if modesty consisted only in the (bare) integrity of the flesh, and in turning away from (actual) fornication…wearing in their gait [i.e. their walk] the self-same appearance as the women of the nations, from whom the sense of true modesty is absent…How many a one, in short, is there who does not earnestly desire even to look pleasing to strangers? Who does not on that very account take care to have herself painted out, and denies that she has (ever) been an object of (carnal) appetite?” — Tertullian (A.D. 198) Ante-Nicene Fathers vol.4 pg. 18-19
Tertullian makes the point that modesty is a lot more than merely avoiding sexual sin itself, but rather, modesty should govern how we behave. He seems to say that we shouldn’t even walk like an unbeliever. We shouldn’t be the kind of people who put on various makeup to look attractive to strangers, and then proceed to say, “I wasn’t trying to seek attention.”
Tertullian elsewhere went so far as to say:
“Those women sin against God when they rub their skin with ointments, stain their cheeks with rouge, and make their eyes prominent with antimony. To them, I suppose, the artistic skill of God is displeasing.” — Tertullian Ante-Nicene Fathers vol.4, book II, chapter V
Cyprian said likewise:
“Both sexes alike should be admonished that the work of God and His fashioning and formation should in no manner be adulterated – either with application of yellow color, black dust, rouge, or with any kind of cosmetic…God says, ‘Let us make man in our image and likeness.’ Does anyone dare to alter and change what God has made? They are laying hands on God when they try to re-form that which He formed, and to transfigure it, not knowing that everything that comes into being is God’s work; everything that is changed is the devil’s.” — Cyprian Ante-Nicene Fathers vol. 5 The Treatises of Cyprian, Tr. II, section 15
Now, I’m not necessarily saying, “Throw out the make-up!” But I am saying that we seriously ought to consider the habit of our behavior and say, “Why am I doing this?” If we do not think that what God made is good enough, perhaps we ought to search our hearts, and search the Scriptures, and see that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14), even when we are bare-faced.
Quite contrary to accentuating our beauty, as culture would have us do, Tertullian advises this way:
“Let a holy woman, if naturally beautiful, give none so great occasion (for carnal appetite). Certainly, if even she be so, she ought not to set off (her beauty), but even to obscure it… ‘You are bound to please your husbands only.’ But you will please them in proportion as you take no care to please others.” — Tertullian (A.D. 198) Ante-Nicene Fathers vol.4 pg. 20
If a woman is naturally beautiful, she shouldn’t show off or flaunt her beauty; instead, she should “obscure” her beauty. For what reason? So that the woman pleases her husband only (the only person to whom it really matters whether she is beautiful or not), rather than being beautiful to every stranger that glances her way (and therefore attract undue attention and lust).
Perhaps, with all of this, we can see a glimpse into what Paul and Peter were talking about when they said that the woman’s adorning shouldn’t be outward but inward. It shouldn’t be our appearance that catches people’s attention — it should be our godliness: “the lasting beauty of a gentle and tranquil spirit” (1 Peter 3:4), which stands in stark contrast with the loud and defiant adulterous woman of Proverbs 7:10-11 (and context).
Now, take from everything I’ve said and quoted whatever you’d like. There is more that could be said, and some other things which the early Christians said that go beyond even my own standards of modesty. Scripture is the final authority, and God is the ultimate judge. I just thought that in combating our tendencies to live with freedom (without thinking about how it affects the lusts of those around us), it could do us all some good to hear some of the Scriptures and some of the early Christians, to see what these devout men of God had to say about how we ought to conduct ourselves.
Let us then consider one another and how our actions affect them, remembering:
“None of us lives for himself, and no one dies for himself. If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. … So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God. Therefore, let us no longer judge one another. Instead decide never to put a stumbling block or pitfall in the way of your brother or sister.” — the apostle Paul (Romans 14:7-8,12-13)